The name of Police Chief Reuben Greenberg of Charleston, S.C., was reported incorrectly in an article about The Citadel yesterday.
It was about 2 a.m. Oct. 23 when the five Citadel cadets made their move. Pulling sheets and towels over themselves to resemble Ku Klux Klansmen, they slipped down an unlighted stairway to the ground floor of Steven Barracks.
Lighting a paper cross, they burst through the unlocked green door and dashed to the bunk of Kevin Nesmith, one of 31 blacks in a class of 651 freshmen.
"Kevin," one told Nesmith, 17, and his startled roommate, "you need to get your . . . together." With that, the five let loose a string of racial slurs before Nesmith's roommate chased them off.
A school spokesman said Nesmith slept through the incident, which the official said lasted no more than 90 seconds. Nesmith's friends dispute whether the young cadet, called a "knob" because a Citadel freshman's closely cropped hair makes his head look like a doorknob, remained asleep.
There is no dispute, however, that the night's events have shaken and polarized this city where the Civil War began more than any in the three decades since desegregation became the law of the land. Black leaders here say the incident suggests that the years of supposed racial harmony in the New South may be a fiction.
"What hit everybody so hard was that they thought we were beyond that," said Reuben Goldberg, this city's black police chief.
Because of their age, many white cadets are "pretty insensitive" to blacks' concerns, senior David MacPherson of Laurel, Md., said in an interview arranged by the school.
"We grew up at the end of the civil rights movement, and we're ignorant of it," said the 21-year-old MacPherson, who, as regimental commander, is The Citadel's top cadet. "Martin Luther King is to me something I've seen on a videotape. When did he die? 1969? I was 4 years old then." (King was assassinated April 4, 1968.)
Shortly after school officials announced that the white students would not be expelled -- the punishment prescribed, but not mandated, in the cadets' blue rulebook -- Nesmith resigned in disgust, saying he was still being harassed by white cadets. Neither he nor any of the students involved in the incident were available for interviews.
"I feel that I have been made the victim when the villains remain at The Citadel," he said in a statement issued by his family. His brother, Alonzo Nesmith, a Citadel graduate who sits on the school's powerful Board of Visitors, has broken with the school's military leaders, describing the incident as "an act of terrorism" and charging that the school was trying to "sweep it under the rug."
His allegations, echoed by civil rights activist Jesse L. Jackson and local black leaders, have infuriated many of the school's alumni and brought them rushing to the defense of The Citadel, one of the nation's two remaining all-male, state-supported military schools.
They also have galvanized Charleston's sizable black community -- 47 percent of the city's population, many of whom participated in a march to The Citadel's gates -- and the school's blacks, 6 percent of The Citadel's 1,960 cadets. Gov. Richard Riley's top black aides are studying demands that the school be more sensitive to minorities.
Citadel students wear the same Confederate-gray uniforms worn by their predecessors, who fired on a Union ship before the battle of Fort Sumter, and the glory of the Rebel cause is ingrained in the school's traditions. The night a local television station announced that a telephone call-in narrowly supported the school's decision to keep the five white cadets on campus, white cadets in one barracks spontaneously broke into "Dixie," the school's fight song.
School officials deplore the Nesmith incident as ugly and racist but reject allegations of pervasive racism. "I don't consider this to be a schoolboy prank," said James A. Grimsley Jr., a retired two-star Army general and the school's president. "It is an aberration of what I consider to have been a positive racial climate."
But black students say the incident is only the latest manifestatation of racism they long have encountered without protest at the 143-year-old school, which rises like a sprawling white Moorish castle along the gray, sandy shore of the Ashley River. They broke their silence when Grimsley stripped the five white cadets of their rank, confined them to campus for six months and ordered them to march more than 195 penalty "tours" instead of expelling them.
"I can guarantee . . .if a group of five black students, wearing the berets of the Black Panthers and shouting 'honky' and 'cracker,' had invaded the room of a white student, they would be doing the I-26 shuffle the next day, heading home," said Nelson Rivers, head of the South Carolina NAACP.
Grimsley, a decorated infantry officer on active duty, said he "almost doubled" the punishment recommended by a disciplinary panel. The five students had exemplary records, he said, and dismissing them would have been "the easy way out. You know: out of sight, out of mind."
Each penalty tour is 50 minutes in which a cadet must march back and forth on the checkerboard-like courtyard inside his barracks.
"This is a helluva thing. There is nothing in the book for 195 tours," said school spokesman Lt. Col. Ben W. LeGare, adding that it is the heaviest punishment the school has ever given a cadet and may threaten his chances of securing a military commission after graduation.
When black students held a "sensitivity forum" Wednesday night to try to open a dialogue between black and white cadets, only a dozen whites and no administration officials showed up. LeGare said the administration was not told about the meeting.
"What's it with 'Dixie'? " asked a white cadet, a South Carolina native.
"Listen to the words," said an exasperated Terry Adams, a black junior from Washington, " 'I wish I were in the land of cotton/Old times there are not forgotten.' I don't want the old times. They weren't good times for my people, picking cotton."
"What you mean, 'my people?' " interrupted the white cadet.
"My people were slaves, brought here against their will, whipped, chained . . . . I don't want to go back," Adams said. The white cadet seemed unmoved. His ancestors, he said, also worked in the South's cotton fields.
Adams spoke of what he called an attempted "cover-up" of the Klan incident by white student leaders. Adams said he was summoned to Nesmith's room afterward by friends and was told to "go back to sleep" when he tried to tell his student commanders about the incident.
The student leaders, he said, rolled over in their bunks with promises of action the next day and have not been disciplined. On Monday, black members of the school band who objected to playing "Dixie" said they were told that they could face administrative sanctions almost as severe as those imposed on the five white students. When black students wanted to make a symbolic protest over the Nesmith incident they said they were again warned that they could face disciplinary actions.
About half of the school's 120 black cadets attended the forum, sharing stories of their treatment on campus. Several told of being called "nigger" and of white "knobs" being ordered by upperclassmen to tell racist jokes in front of them.
Kenny Gorton, a New Jersey junior who heads the Afro-American Society, said that "as a knob," he was told by several upperclassmen that "they did not want to see blacks in The Citadel and that they wanted me out of here." Under school rules, freshmen may not talk back to upperclassmen.
Earlier this year, the black students said they warned MacPherson, without result, that racial slurs were increasing on the campus and that he should urge his subordinates to warn against such insensitivity. The students said they have offered similar warnings to the school's administration, complaining that the school song and the Confederate flags flown at sporting events are offensive to blacks.
MacPherson could not be reached for comment on whether he was warned. Grimsley, a South Carolina native and a 1942 Citadel graduate, said he rejects the complaints, because "I don't think playing 'Dixie' and showing the battle flag of the Confederacy creates white racism," he said.
At the school's game last Saturday, students said numerous alumni brandished new Rebel flags. "You could see the creases in them from the box," Adams said. As a countermeasure, the blacks raised a large American flag midway through the game when the alumni began waving their flags.
For Grimsley, the furor could not have come at a worse time. The general, successor to Navy Vice Adm. James Bond Stockdale, who resigned in 1980 because of the school's refusal to accept changes, had seemed to be firmly in control, and the school had been receiving good publicity. U.S. News & World Report recently said that "as a state-supported school, The Citadel has few equals." Applications, which dipped sharply during the Vietnam war, were booming, with three applicants for every freshman slot, and scholastic aptitude scores for freshmen were never higher.
The Citadel admitted its first black cadet in 1966 and in 1981, with many other southern colleges, pledged to increase its minority enrollment. The agreement called for The Citadel, in a state that is 31 percent black, to make "a good-faith effort" to attract a 10 percent black enrollment.
"I said at the time we can't make it, but the point was that we made a good-faith effort," Grimsley said, and he acknowledged that the latest incident will make recruiting black students more difficult. "We'll just have to work harder to do it," he said. This year, however, a number of the black students said they will not help the administration.
"How can you go back home and tell a friend, 'Hey, forget about what you read in the papers. It's really a great place.' " Asked why he chose The Citadel, Adams, whose father was a military officer, shook his head.
"A mistake," he said.
The school appeared to have progressed today toward resolving the racial issue when a group of Charleston black ministers announced after a 63-minute meeting with Grimsley that they were withdrawing their demand for his resignation. The school agreed to appoint a committee including some of the ministers to advise Grimsley on racial issues at the school, and the Rev. Frank Portee afterward urged the community to "put this incident behind us."
But the momentum toward resolution may have been lost a few moments later when Grimsley appeared before television cameras and patted Portee on the back, refusing to pose for photographs with him.
"He's had his press conference, and now I have mine," the general said with a pained smile.